NASCAR Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Unsolicited Opinions on Things You Haven’t Thought About Until Now

In this space each week, I usually wax poetic – or manic – depending on your view, on some topic that has been, by this point in the week, completely beaten to death and rehashed to the point that you probably can’t fire off a letter to me quick enough, asking that habeas corpus be suspended, and my voice forever silenced. After all, what else hasn’t been said? Perhaps I’ve said too much already.

Anyway, beyond whether or not Jeremy Mayfield is a tweaker, or Indy is going to be a debacle again this year, I did have a column ready to go titled, “He’s Just Not That Indy You…”. I’ve decided to out do myself yet again, and cover a few items that have gone unnoticed the last few weeks.

First off is the situation at Yates Racing. Once the standard bearer for Ford performance and synonymous with big horsepower for two decades, to say they’ve fallen on hard times would be akin to saying Vice President Biden’s hair lacks volume.

For so many years they were the Ying to Roush’s Yang. To see what has become of their racing operation and the rationale behind what has been going on this season is troubling at best. Even Elliott Sadler was able to win races and be competitive in their cars not that long ago. Now the Yates (and Yates affiliated) cars of Paul Menard and Bobby Labonte sit 34th and 26th in the point standings – each more concerned with maintaining a Top-35 standing, let alone making the Chase. A top 10 for this team would feel like a win by now.

And could somebody remind me again why the No. 28 car with Travis Kvapil that actually was semi-competitive, shut down?

Rumors abound that Menard and his father John have been actively shopping his sponsorship to other teams recently. While I can’t speak to the validity of these reports, whether this is a move to find a more competitive team that will provide Menard a means to run well on a consistent basis (let’s face it, he has not had a decent car since his Nationwide Series days as playing second fiddle to Martin Truex Jr.), or get in the last life boat on the Titanic before it goes vertical and that one guy goes cart-wheeling into the mast, I would be slow to point the finger at Menard. Dale Jarrett in his prime or Davey Allison circa 1991 would fare much better.

Case in point – Bobby Labonte.

The only men who have fallen from grace quicker than Labonte the last two years have been Elliot Spitzer and Governor Mark Sanford – and although adultery has not been his undoing, that creepy chick from those Ask.com commercials seems to be ready to step up to the plate if need be. Labonte is experiencing a decidedly more miserable go of it, after abdicating his No. 18 Interstate Batteries ride with JGR for the King’s Chariot. After the first few races this year, many were shocked at the performance of Labonte’s No. 96 All-Star Racing team, and wondered aloud if they would make the Chase. I think we all realize that was a stretch at best – and with an average finish of 23.7 so far this year, it has been made abundantly clear: being one of Ford’s second-stringers is not going to return him to the halcyon days of the late 1990s or early 2000s.

It is a bit iron… no, I’m not going to say ironic. Everybody says that, and 99% of the time it is in the wrong context. I hate it and I’m sick of it. It is quite peculiar that the one automaker who did not accept a Congressional Corleone bailout is the one strug-gl-ing worse than Joe Namath being interviewed by Suzy Kolber at a Jets game. Case in point – the flagship Ford operation of Roush Fenway Racing. Carl Edwards has been the most consistent. Greg Biffle has shown flashes of brilliance, and let’s not forget Matt Kenseth winning back to back at the Daytona 500 and California to start the year off.

Since then they’ve been blah at best, with perhaps the biggest disappointment this side of Kannapolis being David Ragan in the UPS No. 6 car. Much like a UPS truck, Ragan’s rig has quite a bit of difficulty turning left (they usually only make right turns for accident avoidance…a little fun-fact for you) this year and has him buried 30th in points. Wasn’t this supposed to be the year that he broke out, won his first race, and qualified for the Chase? He can’t wear the dart-with-no-feathers label anymore, since a dart would indicate something related to velocity or speed. Feathers work, since the No. 6 car this year has been little more than a big turkey.

How’s that for an analogy? Dennis Miller, eat your heart out.

What’s more, Ragan or his equally depressing teammate Jamie McMurray, will be the odd man out at Roush Fenway by year’s end. One team will need to be cut, and likely sent to the Land of Misfit Fusions at Yates Racing. It’s anyone’s guess who that would be. Both the UPS and Crown Royal sponsorships are lucrative and coveted in NASCAR, so getting rid of one or the other is a crap shoot. He hasn’t asked me, but if Jack Roush needed some input, I’d still stick with Ragan and devote the resources necessary energy to return the No. 6 car to its former glory. I think they’ve gotten as much mileage out of McMurray as they can, and Ragan has a lot of years yet left to mature and show his potential.

I do find it a bit iro… strange though that McMurray was originally hired to drive the No. 6, and the fact that he isn’t in it already might be what leads to his move to Yates for 2010.

Which of course, brings up a related scenario: The Danica Factor.

For the last month or so, the talk has once again revolved around Danica Patrick potentially moving south to race in NASCAR. Jack Roush has had an open invitation to her to drive his cars since she peeked her head in a Roush Fenway Ford at Chicagoland in 2006. If she were to accept his offer – which is apparently contingent that she runs the Truck Series or Nationwide cars first for a year – both McMurray AND Ragan would be ousted at Roush. As much as many would like to see Danica do stockcars, I would be utterly shocked if it ever came to be. Should the IndyCar Series fold, then yes, I could see it. I think what we’re witnessing is another ploy by Patrick and her representative to keep one of the few recognizable and household names from open wheel in an open-wheel car.

In my mind, smart money still has her moving to a Target Chip Ganassi Racing car next year, in the IndyCar Series.

Speaking of a fellow open wheeler who has spent time in a Cheap Ganassi Indy Car… how about the performance so far this season of Juan Pablo Montoya? To quote Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, “You are definitely born again hard!” Gone are the mental miscues, avoidable accidents or slap fights with Kevin Harvick. JPM currently has his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet ninth in points, poised to make a serious run at Chase contention. The next three races on the schedule are Indianapolis (where he won the 500 in 2000), Pocono (which has an Indy-themed corner in turn 1), and Watkins Glen (where his road racing…and hand holding… exploits are well known), tracks that should pay big dividends as the Race to the Chase comes to a close.

I’m conflicted about this one. As much as I want to see him succeed and make it, the numbers tell a different tale.

Montoya in all reality hasn’t run particularly great this year; he has achieved his position through poise, not audacity. He has one pole and no top fives, yet nine top 10s so far this season. Even Jeff Burton thinks that’s boring. He has no DNFs, and has finished on the lead-lap all but four times, which brings to bear one glaring omission from his resume in 2009… bad luck.

As tight as the points are among the bottom quarter of Chase contenders, a blown motor or a flat tire will relegate him to duking it out with Marcos Ambrose for 18th. It’s been a great story and something for the EGR bunch to hang their hat on with the departure of Truex Jr. from the original DEI machine, but I see this one ending in hand wringing and the gnashing of teeth… much like many of you are feeling right now after having read this.

Feel free to comment or give me your two cents. Your newest member for NASCAR’s Citizen Journalist Corps would love to hear from you.

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